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Some Mysterious Shopping along the Cote D’Azur

(Sandi Dunn).

Final Edit version                 Words 2,000  (Photos to follow)

I was on a plane bound for Marseille. I’d been allotted eighty shops to visit, dotted along the Cote d’Azur – Marseille to Nice – because now, I’m a Mystery Shopper.

You might ask ‘what’s that, as I did a few weeks ago when Lynne, an old friend, rung to see if I was interested in some casual work. ‘Annie, how do you fancy two weeks’ work on the Cote d’Azur all expenses paid?’ Her enthusiasm gushed down the phone. ‘What’s she up to now?’ I wondered, ‘not another of those pyramid things I hope,’ for, poor as we both were, we’d recently helped bail out a mutual friend who’d invested her money in a health drink scam. Our friend, also desperate for work, was seduced into believing that a brown ‘health’ concoction could be sold to slimmers’ groups. Like her cash it ended up down the toilet after a TV exposé revealed that the most genuine thing about it was the plastic bottle. I reminded Lynne of this, but she was adamant: hers was a real job. She was a manager for Action for Brands.

Her description of the work sounded convincing. ‘Annie, my job is to find people prepared to work on a casual basis, as brand auditors. They travel incognito, hence the job title ‘Mystery Shopper’. To be honest, I’m still a bit hazy about it, but I’ve been taken on specially to manage a new contract with Garnieste.’ With the enthusiasm of a believer she continued: ‘Big brands hire companies like ours to check on the shops and boutiques stocking their luxury goods – you know, designer bags, eyewear, accessories… they want to be sure that their products are in the right kind of stores. All you need is a clean driving licence, a digital camera and a laptop – plus some confidence. Annie,’ she pleaded, ‘do it for me – please?’

Waking up in a big hotel bed on a July, Mediterranean, blue-sky morning in Marseille, felt quite glam after years of scraping along in London. A delicious smell of coffee and croissants wafted up from somewhere below. Breakfast was being served in a sunny conservatory filled with scented jasmine and scarlet geraniums. I took a table in the far corner. A sensation of mild panic shot through me. ‘Goodness, I hope I can do this; I hope Lynne’s job doesn’t depend on me!’ I muttered aloud to myself as I dunked my croissant into my café crème.

With an uncertain day ahead, I decided to hurry. Paying the bill I noted the gorgeous, sweet scent of eau de cologne that the receptionist was wearing. It was another of those tantalising, foreign, morning smells not often in evidence in London.

Still somewhat ill at ease, I set off to my parked hire car only to be greeted by the sight of deep scratches along the driver’s side. The owner of the nearby bar rushed over to tell me the worst. Speaking in French she pointed out my mistake. ‘Madam, the cleaning trucks squeeze through here early every morning, the road is narrow. Look!’ Following her gaze I realised the reason the other cars were parked half on, half off the pavement. Luckily I’d had the instinct to pay the insurance excess waiver.

Determined to get organised I climbed into the car. It was 10am and hot – real prickly heat – already in the 30s. Another wave of panic rose as I searched for the instructions for the ‘sat nav’; I’d never used one before. They weren’t there. I eventually worked out how to tap in the address of my first store call.

I set off, chanting my driving abroad mantra: ‘stay right, look left, stay right look left’, whilst trying to take in the sat nav’s instructions. I was directed through the 2.5km, fast moving, Prado Carenage tunnel… not once, but three times! On each occasion I was guided through the same narrow back streets then back to the tunnel’s yawning, dark entrance – all the time with ‘Marseille man’ hard on my tail, honking and waving his fist at a dithering, obviously foreign, woman driver.

I ignored the toll clerk’s funny look and again handed over my cash. ‘God, he recognises me!’ I said out loud, as if the sound of my voice would lessen my panic. After my third tunnel loop I decided to find my way back to my starting point opposite the bar. This time I parked like a local – halfway on the pavement.

In a frazzle, I stumbled into the cool shady bar to think. I ordered a lemon pressé with ice and slowly sipped the refreshing, bittersweet drink. I hit on the idea of buying a map and carrying out my Marseille audits by bus and foot. And so, with my first Mystery Shopping day complete and confidence restored, I retrieved the car and returned to the car hire office to demand a working sat-nav.

‘Eeet’s faulty,’ the assistant explains. ‘Eeet’s people, they bang eet. Don’t worry, pas de problem.’ He produced a new model complete with manual. We fell into some banter and I asked, ‘How on earth do people cope with driving in this heat?’ I felt very silly when he told me – and at admitting that I’d never driven a vehicle with air-conditioning.

Accompanying me to the car, oblivious to the scratches, with a ‘voila’ he pointed out the button marked AC. ‘Eeet’s Zeese way,’ he showed me, ‘Les nombres bleus.’ Suddenly, everything fell into place.

The next few days passed uneventfully. I enjoyed zipping along, performing my mystery shopping calls in lovely places like Cassis, Bandol, Toulon and Hyeres-Plage. Whenever I could, I’d venture onto D roads and wind through the beautiful Provençal countryside, opening the windows to enjoy the sweet, warm air and the sound of a billion cicadas. Sometimes I sang along to a middle-of-the-road music station on the radio. At others I enjoyed trying to follow phone-in programmes.

St Tropez was next on my list. While resetting the sat nav a frisson of pleasure surged at the thought of visiting such an iconic place. The route wound through the forest and hills of Maures then, suddenly, the silvery, shining expanse of the Mediterranean came into view. I stopped the car and got out to gaze at its beauty. I decided that an extra day and night to experience St-Tropez was essential.

That evening on the seafront, amidst sights of dripping wealth – boutiques full of jewellery and glamorous clothes, open-top sports cars, luxury yachts moored in the marina – I was able to find a ‘no-frills’ tabac bar and café near the harbour with a 10 Euro plat du jour sign outside. The owner had charm and an intelligent air about him. He served me with grace a near perfect omelette, salad, fresh bread and a small carafe of house wine. I sat facing the harbour feeling like the proverbial million dollars. Monsieur bar owner was a touch flirtatious, but in a non-threatening way, so happily I played along. Eventually, it transpired that rumpy-pumpy was the desert special with free accommodation thrown in! I thought about it. Sadly though, I wasn’t sufficiently ‘in the mood’ so, boringly, I bid him, ‘Merci, a plus tard!’ and went in search of a hotel.

The next day, my audits done and uploaded, I amused myself by playing voyeur and attempting to glimpse how the rich live. I wandered along the marina promenade staring into enormous yachts on which the occupants sunned themselves. I eavesdropped on conversations in cafes and boutiques fascinated; but their lifestyle did not appeal one jot. It was as if I were an academic studying an alien species.

Back on the road, I visited stores in St Raphael, Cannes and Antibes before arriving in Nice – my last port of call. My aim was to complete my work quickly to leave enough time to explore the city before my flight home.

Most of the calls were in a shopping mall on the outskirts. Incongruously, the exterior was surprisingly scruffy while inside it was a palace of luxury consumerism, decorated with the local pink, cream and black marble and splendidly lit. I began my routine: first photographing the store frontage and surrounding area, taking care (I hoped) not to be seen. Next, I’d saunter in to note the décor, service, and which competitor brands were on sale. I would then leave to discreetly fill out the questionnaire before forgetting the details. But, on this occasion, a security guard noticed me taking photos.

The urge to finish and get into Nice had made me more careless than usual. The guard was dressed as a normal shopper; a sensation of being followed made me turn around. That’s when I noticed him speaking into his lapel radio. My heart pounded. ‘Oh no! This must be how shoplifters feel when caught, what shall I do?’ I followed the signs for the toilets, went in and waited. As I re-emerged a uniformed guard was waiting. He asked me to accompany him and led me along a poorly lit passage to his office. The surroundings were in stark contrast to the glamorous world on the other side of the wall.

I learned later that the mall was occasionally robbed and that taking photos was the thieves’ method of ‘casing the joint’ Too late, I remembered that Action for Brands had warned us of similar scenarios during our induction. I reproached myself, ‘How stupid to be so careless; how can I explain? My French won’t be up to it!’

The police arrived: thankfully one of them spoke good English. I showed him my passport. He was pleased I was from London and went as far as commenting how much he’d enjoyed staying there when he was young. ‘So far so good’ I thought; but I had trouble explaining to him the concept of mystery shopping.

My story had to be verified before I could be released. I felt small and silly as phone calls criss-crossed between Garnieste’s head office in Paris, Lynne’s Action for Brands boss in London and the French police. After almost two hours I was allowed to go.

I drove straight to Nice’s Promenade des Anglais where, as dusk was falling, I was able to park on the pretty seafront. With relief I found a seat on the nearest bar terrace and ordered a cocktail.

I’d stayed in Nice many years ago when I’d taken a two-week beginners French language course. It was wonderful to find that the city had been transformed since then. All traffic is banned from the centre and in its place are graceful, purring trams. After my reviving cocktail, I wandered towards the beautified centre and found on the restored Place Massena, fountains that rose in a mighty whoosh every few minutes in time to music and lights. Families were out late. Children whooped with joy at each whoosh. Nice was now a city where people could relax. ‘Perhaps I could live here,’ I pondered.

Nearby, a stage had been erected in readiness for the celebration of Nice’s 150 years of being French. Before then, Nice had been an Italian Dominion. That night, under a starry sky, the Nice Opera House Philharmonic Orchestra struck up and played Beethoven’s 9th.

It was a beautiful evening. All thoughts of my stressful day with the police and next morning’s rush to the airport dissolved. Arriving in Nice on its 150th birthday was a chance, perfect ending to my first marathon ‘mystery shopping’ journey. Would I do it again? Oh boy, Would I!

My mobile buzzed: a text from Lynne. ‘Annie, I hope you’re ok after your ordeal? Sorry to bother you, but I need to know very soon if I can put you down for Italy? We need someone for Florence and the surrounding provinces – how about it?’ ‘Hmmm, I’ll have to think about it,’ I texted back, to tease her. Then added,’ Just kidding, I’d love to; Italy sounds fab. I can hardly wait!’ End